20 January, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Not sure if this ever happens to you but sometimes I buy books I do not read until years later, much later. This doesn't often happens, for eventually I read all the books I buy. But a strange thing happened with this book I am about to talk about, Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, a book I bought more than 15 years ago and for one reason or another I simply just forgot I had it. About a week ago, looking for some post-Christmas reading, I found that book-- a precious nugget of a book. To my surprise, it was even autographed by the author himself, Oscar Hijuelos, who died a few months ago of a stroke in 2013.

Mr. Ives' Christmas is a modern-day Dickensian little tome of a book. Of about 250 pages only, it distills the life of a man named Ives, a foundling adopted by an Irish man. Of dubious ethnicity, Mr. Ives marries and has two children, a girl and a boy. His life is always interpreted through the prism of religiosity. Mr. Ives, you see, is a deeply religious catholic man who, at times, doubts his own passionate beliefs. In fact, he's smart enough to notice the accidental tragedies that befall people and is intellectually sophisticated to ask the “why's.” He is privy to senseless, tragic accidents that seem to follow him for most of his life.

While still dating the woman he will marry, Annie, early in the book, he witnesses the death of a lady who accidentally falls through her apartment window and onto the pavement, the impact killing her immediately. He himself almost drowns as a youth. The only thing he can extract from both experiences is a sense of sheer horror and desperation. There are no parting clouds, music or angels coming out to greet you at heaven's door. Mr. Ives meets many people who seem to have experienced tragedy first-hand, such as a co-worker who was also a concentration camp survivor and who has never been able to forget the children she saw go to the gas chambers every day, often with flowers in their hands.

But nothing is about to prepare Mr. Ives for what life has in store for him.

From as long as he could remember, Mr. Ives' only boy, Robert, has had a proclivity for the religious way of life. Eventually, Robert tells his dad he wants to join the Dominican order, a decision that at first takes Mr. Ives by surprise but a decision by his son he learns to accept. One day in 1967, Robert is senselessly murdered by a Daniel Gomez, a troubled Puerto Rican teenager, right on the streets near a church. Of course, like the random violence in our streets, there is no logic or reason for the murder. Having lost his only son, on the verge of losing his own faith, and unable to come to grips with the reality of a personal tragedy, Mr. Ives tries to live his life the best way he can. He is not the type of man to harbor bitterness or hatred in his heart, something that sets him apart from the characters, including his wife and his long-time best Cuban friend, Luis Ramirez.

Mr. Ives is given the chance to avenge his son's senseless murder by an Irish friend from the neighborhood, but Mr. Ives declines to take justice into his own hands. For the murder, the youth spends three years in a juvenile detention center, and, upon his release, now an adult, he goes on to commit another murder, for which he is charged with second degree manslaughter and for which he is given a twenty-two years sentence. Almost a tormented soul, Mr. Ives realizes that he could have prevented this second murder at the hands of this troubled youth if, three years before, he had taken his neighbor's deal and pay a hit-man to take the law into his own hand.

Mr. Ives, wavering between faith and doubt, one day has a religious epiphany after being prone to an accident inside an elevator. He will never ever rationally be able to explain the religious experience, enough to say that it seemed as if transcendence went beyond the simple rituals of his catholic faith, a faith he never truly gives up on.

“Then, not knowing whether to shout from ecstasy or fear, he looked up and saw the sun, glowing red and many times its normal size, looming over the avenue, a pink and then flaring yellow corona bursting from it. And then, in all directions the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different-colored powder like strange Asian spices: one was cardinal red, one the color of saffron, another gray like mothwing, the last a brilliant violet, and these came from four directions, spinning like a great pinwheel over Madison Avenu and Forty-first Street.”

It's a religious mysticism he's never able to explain, but that each character also experience in their own particular ways.

Way into the 1990's and decades after his son's murder, Mr. Ives finds visits the man who murdered his son in 1967. The youth, now an adult, married, prone to depression, guilty-ridden and weighing over 300 lbs, apologizes and Mr. Ives forgives him. In fact, it is Mr. Ives' sudden benevolence towards him that makes all the difference to his felon.

This is a book that jumps around throughout the decades. It encapsules a New York City long gone as well as a microcosm of a world we're all too familiar with: violence, post-modernity, chaos, you name it. Storylines and character development move in and out with the ease that only a master story-teller can accomplish.

Like most of Hijuelos's other novel, this books is a rich tapestry of music, life and changing times. It is a melting pot of ideas, events, and about living life by faith even under tremendous doubts. I suppose it is the Job story rehashed to modern times. At base is the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More importantly: how can people keep a sense of faith in a world seemingly at odds with human aspiration. At a much deeper level, this is also the story of a man coming to grips with a faith wanting in explanations as to why bad things happen to good people. It is like the atheist who still goes to church in order to enjoy either the ritual, the camaderie, or the music.

The book ends with Mr. Ives having a discussion about why one's religious feelings are truer than what we find in life. It is just because they are so personal, so subjective and, ultimately, indescribable, that they take on a wider meaning. Mr. Ives feels that despite personal evidende to the contrary, there is a form of life after death. He knows that there is a god somewhere, out there, or within. It is something that he just knows, though he, like the other characters in this book, cannot put this into words. It's a matter of faith: you either have it or you don't.

I have given a very quick review of this book. There is more, much more in here to read and enjoy. I found myself agreeing more than disagreeing with the trials and tribulations of Mr. Ives and his family.  


Ryck said...

I hope I enjoy the book as I much as I enjoyed your review of it.

Ryck said...

I hope I enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed your review of it.